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Preservation Hall Comes to San Francisco! (review)

Preservation Hall Jazz Band drum set

This weekend was the grand opening of the "Preservation Hall West," a San Francisco-based annex of the venerable jazz institution the Preservation Hall in New Orleans.  

I was lucky enough to catch the second line parade by the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band through the Mission District on Friday afternoon to welcome the new venue, and then to the Sunday night concert at Preservation Hall West. From what I've seen so far, I think the venue has a lot of potential as an affordable, casual space for live music in the city. But it doesn't look like it's going to be an outpost for New Orleans-style jazz on the West Coast, unfortunately.

Located on Valencia between 18th and 19th street in the Mission, Preservation Hall West at the Chapel is in a prime location for hipsters, night revelers and adventurous tourists to visit.  The venue itself has a large concert area in the chapel of the former mortuary (hence the name) with 40 foot ceilings and a balcony and a bar in the back.  There's another bar space up front with a few small tables to hang out.  And then next door is a larger restaurant space that was only open for the band and VIPs when I was there.

Members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band play in the MissionI'm a sucker for a NOLA-style second line.  So when I heard that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was going to be leading a second line through the Mission to officially open the new venue, I had to be there.

My friend Jim and I met up with about 50 or so people at Mission and 22nd street as the band was getting set up.  Several people in the crowd had instruments and noisemakers.  But very few had parasols or white hankerchiefs to wave in the air, so clearly second line newbies. Still everyone had a great time walking behind the band, clapping and cheering the music.

As we entered into the dusty, unlit chapel space, the crowd gathered around the band, who played in a rough semi-circle.  I stood right up front and was awash in the epic sound of these amazing musicians playing all around me in the half-light. No video could possibly capture the sublime experience.

Several of my friends were going to the Friday evening performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.  I unfortunately did not get tickets in time because I'm an idiot, so I decided to go on Sunday for PHJB's last concert that weekend.  That turned out to be an awesome accident.

PHJB opened a little after 8pm with a latin-tinged mini-set, performing with an awesome guest vocalist whose name I didn't get.  The crowd got into the call-and-response and clapping to the music right from the start, which was good to see. Then the band invited up amazing fiddler and singer Amanda Shaw. Then Amanda did a few more tunes with her band "The Cute Guys" as PHJB took a break.  Amanda has some serious chops and great stage presence for such a young person!  

PHJB returned with the incredible Soul Rebels brass band for a couple of raucous NOLA tunes.  The Soul Rebels play a more street style of NOLA jazz and funk, which contrasted well with the more straight-up style of PHJB.  There were a ridiculous number of horns, two tubas, and two drummers on stage!  

In contrast, folksy, geek-cute singer Justin Townes Earle came up and jammed with the band and performed 3-4 of his own songs. Lots of folks in the crowd seemed to be big fans from all the cheering I heard, but I didn't really get the appeal. "He's my secret boyfriend," the woman next to me kvelled. "But I do want to feed him a hamburger."

For the finale, the entire Del McCoury Band came up to jam with PHJB, which nearly collapsed the small stage with all the musicians up there. Unfortunately, that was where the new-ness of the venue was most apparent, with the sound engineer not able to balance the strings with the horns and the vocals. It sucked to have such talented banjo, mandolin, guitar and piano players playing that you could barely hear!

That was nearly four hours of kick-ass live music, from jazz to bluegrass to country to blues for just $30.

That said, it doesn't look like "Preservation Hall West at the Chapel" is going to be "protecting and honoring New Orleans jazz" in the same way as the real Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Instead club owner Jack Knowles is going to have an "open booking policy." The initial concert offerings after this weekend appear to be mining the alt-rock, alt-folk and indie veins, rather than jazz and blues.  

It's unfortunate that the owners of Preservation Hall are willing to lend their name to a West Coast venture that doesn't appear to have the same spirit of "preservation" of jazz. I understand that every venue owner has to make their nut to survive in the city. But it would be good if they could at least try and find a balance between profitability and respect for the musical traditions that Preservation Hall was founded to protect.  

For now, we might have to wait for when Preservation Hall Jazz Band comes back to SF to see more jazz at Preservation Hall West. Which is a damn shame.

[Photo credit: musicnationalservice on flickr.] 

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